The Wright Brothers' Role in Military Aviation

In all the coverage devoted to the flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, N.C., 100 years ago, a key figure should not be overlooked. With the brothers, he helped to change the course of military history and how nations fight wars.

His name was Benjamin Foulois, a future Army general who became a pilot in 1909, only six years after the historic flight of the brothers on Dec. 17, 1903. That was when, in his words, fliers “were regarded as fit inmates for insane asylums.” And no wonder-in 1909, 32 pilots were killed in plane crashes.

Even the Speaker of the House Rep. Joe Cannon (R.-Ill.), was among the skeptics. Speaker Cannon was among the spectators during an aerial demonstration on July 30 of that year at Ft. Myer, Virginia. The pilot was Orville Wright. He was accompanied by Foulois, then a young lieutenant.

As he watched the preparations on the ground, Cannon told those nearby, “You can’t convince me that that thing will fly.” When it did, he said, “Well, it’s flying-but you can’t make me believe it will stay up.”

Wright and Foulois set three world records in aviation that day-they flew at the unheard of speed of forty-two and a half miles an hour, their trip covered ten miles, and they reached the unimaginable altitude of four hundred feet.

Wright was demonstrating the aircraft in the hope of convincing the Army to buy it. Foulois was aboard as an observer to submit a recommendation to his superiors on what the Army’s decision should be. He gave the plane a favorable rating. The Army already knew the plane met at least one of its requirements: It was small enough and light enough to be transported by horse and wagon. After reading the report by Foulois, the Army bought the plane for $25,000, plus a bonus of $5,000.

In his 1968 autobiography with C. V. Glines, a respected author and military aviation historian, Foulois said, “Now all the new air service needed was a pilot. As it turned out, I was to be it.”

Foulis received his pilot training in 1909 from the Wright brothers at College Park, Md., where the Army kept its only airplane-Aeroplane Number One-which dwarfed the 5-foot, 6-inch lieutenant. He logged 54 minutes of flight time with Wilbur Wright. When he completed flight training, Foulois was told by his commanding officer, Gen. James Allen, to take the plane to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, where the weather is better for flying.

Gen. Allen told the young officer, “Your orders are simple, Lieutenant: You are to evaluate the airplane. Just take plenty of spare parts-and teach yourself to fly.”

To make sure Foulois had enough spare parts because of the frequent crashes, the Army gave him a maintenance budget for one year-$150.

Aeroplane Number One arrived in San Antonio in 17 wooden cases. By the time Foulois replaced such things as wings, rudders, an elevator and a propeller, he was $300 over budget-and had to reach into his own pocket to keep America’s brand new Air Force in the air. He supplemented his 54 minutes of pilot training in Maryland by writing letters to Orville Wright.

He said he invested a significant amount of his time at Ft. Sam Houston corresponding with Wright, “asking him how to execute basic maneuvers, how to avoid basic disasters-in short, how to fly an airplane. As far as I know, I am the only pilot in history who learned to fly by correspondence.”

He made his first four solo flights on the same day-March 2, 1910, spending less than an hour in the air. In those minutes, he wrote some history of his own which surely has never been equaled by any other pilot. He made his first takeoff, first solo flight, first landing-and first crash-all on the same day.

On his last landing, Foulois was almost thrown out of the plane by turbulence. The resourceful Foulois acted to make sure he wouldn’t come that close again to being thrown out of his plane. He worked with a saddle maker in a field artillery unit and modified a trunk strap to hold him in his seat-the first seat belt.

The experience of almost being thrown out of his plane brought back to Foulois some of the wisest words of advice he ever received from Orville Wright: “Coming down is the most critical part of flying.”

By 1912, military applications of the Wright Brothers’ invention were coming in for detailed discussion and planning-using “aeroplanes” to fly senior officers to various locations quickly, transport troops and to support troops on the ground. Foulois was seeing beyond those applications.

In a report while attending the Army’s Signal School at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., in 1907, he wrote of “aerial accomplishments” and predicted, “In all future warfare, we can expect to see engagements in the air between hostile aerial fleets”-airplanes actually fighting each other in the air.

Foulois wrote in his autobiography that his prediction was years ahead of the more famous visions described by the better known Billy Mitchell. “As far as I know,” he wrote emphatically in 1968, “I was the first military man in modern history to predict the future military uses of the airplane and predict them accurately.”

All of which might have been the farthest things from the minds of Wilbur and Orville Wright when they stood on that beach in North Carolina on that December day in 1903.